Regardless of age, there’s something about autumn that tugs at our core. The new crunch underfoot, sharper air, and richer colors. After a light rain, the moist leaves collect in gutters and along roadways, filling the air with an earthy, sweet smell of decomposition. Those that don’t make it to the gutters are crushed by cars and pairs of so many hurried feet, becoming little ghosts of themselves, their outlines haunting the sidewalks for weeks.
Autumn is so clearly a time of transition. As an adult, and as a gardener, there’s a tinge of grief in knowing that ultimately autumn is not the joyous, electric, pregnant rebirth of spring, but rather a shift toward the dormancy of winter. The colors are deep and rich just before everything turns brown and gray. Soon everything freezes and the plants reign in their activities to focus attention to their invisible processes underground.
Whether it’s the literal or conceptual variety, dormancy isn’t something most humans do well. Or at least that’s the case for most that I know. Props to you if you are wiser. Whereas we may mentally understand the plants aren’t actually dead but just storing up to burst forth in a vibrant spring, we seldom enjoy the waiting. And for those of us who have lost loved ones there seems to be something about fall that exaggerates the hurt. The days get longer, the natural world less colorful. Autumn signals that transition into a process of waiting, the silence, and long periods of dark that are soreminiscent of the mourning process.
My three year old sons, unfettered by thoughts of time (or perhaps more aware of it than I) are fascinated with the spark and immediacy of this seasonal transition. The cooler air has pushed their already energetic selves into a whole new realm of excitement, their little voices perpetually turned up to 11. Even our elderly, overweight dog—who has spent most of the summer panting and dozing on the hardwood floor—seems to be coming alive, running down the back steps and sprinting through the leaves, ears perked up to chase a squirrel run the fence line. Who can deny the zap of the unexpected chill or the magic of texture-rich leaves that lay in drifts around the city? My sons love to reach down and grab them up and throw them in the air, crunch them in their hands, and stare intently at all the little lines and shapes.
Watching my sons I forget the sadness of fall and reminded of my own childhood leaf exploits. All raked up in a big pile, I was about six or seven and I had grown bored of running and jumping in them. Always a little to anxious for a home of my own, I wondered if I might be able to build some kind of house out of them. All I needed was some kind of paste, I thought. I’d mold them together and then make a dome of sorts. I slipped in the kitchen, mixed up some flour and water and egg to produce some kind of plaster. I dumped it on some of the leaves and began my attempt to sculpt a hut. My trusty dog— whom I had ever so creatively named Pups at age five—had other ideas. As I tried to mold the leaves, he ate the dough. Clearly he was much smarter than me, instinctively knowing the only thing that pasty mixture was good for.
My sons are not quite old enough to attempt to build leaf forts, and I hope when they are they’ll be a bit smarter about the whole process. But they are fascinated with this dying part of the tree, and I’m endlessly thankful for their curiosity and willingness to fall in love with autumn without fear of winter. The best education, of course, is observation, and so we go traipsing along, talking about the different shapes of the leaves, how each leaf can tell us about the tree from which it came. This gives us an excellent opportunity to discuss the importance of being a good steward to these living creatures that provide us with oxygen, shade, and healthy soil. And we’re not unique in this. If you spend much time online you’ve probably noticed all the parenting blogs are overflowing with leaf crafts, recommendations for leaf books, and instructions on how to make an alphabet chandelier from leaves (just kidding about that last one, although I’m sure some super mom somewhere has done this). I have yet to meet a young child, or a parent, who isn’t fascinated by leaves or fascinated with our child’s fascination. To state the obvious, trees are downright amazing.
More often than I’d like, I wind up using guidebooks and Google to learn the name the verities. Despite living in the central Arkansas area for most of my life, I have so much to learn about these giants all around me. Whereas my grandparents knew almost all their names and their uses, my parents’ generation has, regrettably, lost sight of this magical knowledge that I’m so desperate to pass on to my children. But isn’t that how it goes? What one generation forgets the other seeks. And it works both ways. Watching my children find amazement in the wind shaking the leaves from the trees reminds me that transition is a fundamental part of life. Not something to be feared but rather something to embrace, as best we can.